Grandma Abbie died in April. The funeral was poorly attended. After all she was well over ninety years old. Her youngest brother and last sibling had died six months earlier. She was the oldest of nine brothers and sisters, one of fifty-six cousins all of whom preceded her in death.
She had borne six children,and outlived two; only two along with their spouses managed to make it to the funeral. Four grandchildren came along with two great grandchildren. The group was filled out by the funeral home director, the cemetery manager, and a couple who had befriended Abbie at church in her later years.
The service though small was somehow solemn and formal. Each attendee spoke, recalling their memories of mother, grandmother, friend. The memories were for the most part positive. There was an emphasis on the fact that each family member owed their life to the woman now lying in the coffin. None of us would be here without her, the last of a generation.
Monalisa, a perceptive two year old saw Grandma Abbie for the first time in her young life lying in the coffin at the funeral home. She had not previously seen or imagined death. But, when her father carried her over to see grandma Abbie and explained that this was granddad’s mama she nodded solemnly. She reached out and touched the cold hands. “She needs a blankie daddy,” she commented.
The service was held at the graveside, chairs set up under an awning facing the closed coffin and the hole dug in the desert sod, surrounded by head stones, faded flowers, agave, and cactus. She had been born and lived most of her life in the West. The desert cemetery was the right place to bury her. When the time came it required everyone’s participation to lower the casket into the hole, grandsons, granddaughters, friends, and children holding the straps in place on either side of the casket while others removed the boards on which the coffin rested over the grave. Slowly, unevenly the coffin was lowered into the ground.
The coffin bouquet arranged by the funeral home, a gorgeous display of full red roses was set to the side. Adults stood heads bowed, saying their final good-byes. Abbie’s son scooped up a handful of dirt and let it dribble through his fingers onto the coffin. Others followed suit. The two year old off to one side, leaning against a marble stone watched with narrowed eyes. Suddenly she straightened up and marched over to stand with the grown-ups but instead of reaching for dirt she reached over and grasped a blood red rose. Holding it by the soft petals she pulled it from the arrangement, walked to the edge of the grave and dropped the rose down onto the coffin. Eyes turned to the tiny child and then the adults followed suit pulling out the beautiful, fragrant roses, dropping them down, covering the casket.
The service over the small group turned and walked toward the front gates and the parked cars. But the two-year old spoke up, “Daddy, why are we leaving grandma Abbie here?” Why are we leaving her in that hole in the ground?”
Her father thought for a moment. “Remember when we planted a seed, and it grew into a big plant with watermelons? Grandma died. We’re putting her in the ground just like that seed. She will go to heaven and she will grow there.”
What do you tell a two year old? Monalisa was interested in what had happened to grandma Abbie. She continued to ask about her. She reassured granddad. Your momma is okay. She went to heaven.”
In September she is still thinking about grandma Abbie. Out working in the garden together, pulling out tomato and pepper plants that have began to wither, turning the earth, preparing the soil for winter and the coming spring she asks me about Abbie. “Will she grow again?”
“Not like a tomato plant; she is in heaven.” We both glance up at the bright sun high in the sky.
Later I bring out a saw and cut down a little dead apple tree. It has knots and knobs on the trunk. It’s been killed by some kind of bug. I show her how dry the tree is, how the twigs snap, how the leaves have all dried up and dropped off. She can see a healthy apple tree nearby. I push the saw through the trunk close to the ground. And the little apple tree topples down. The dark brown branches reach up in a desperate attempt to stay upright, a skeleton of a tree tottering, trying to maintain its posture. But no, it now lies on the ground.
Amara stands looking at the tree. “Where will you put it?”
“I think I’ll just lay it here on the ground for now. We’ll take it away in a few days.”
“Oh. That’s good. Grandma, do apple trees go to heaven?”
I think for a minute. “I think so. I’m sure there are apple trees in heaven.”
Monalisa smiles. “That’s good. Now it will be with grandma Abbie.” She walks away satisfied, brushing dirt from her hands.
And I stand wondering at the understanding of a little child.